Launch Slideshow

rerun of the mill

rerun of the mill

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    Single Speed Design

    Applying ingenuity (and patience), Single Speed Design turned 600,000 pounds of recycled concrete and steel from a highway construction project into this 4,300-squarefoot home. The firm’s principals say the Big Dig House is a prototype for recycling large materials from civic construction projects.

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    Single Speed Design

    Nearly any type of salvaged material is rich in potential—whether it’s highway platforms from Boston’s Big Dig project (above, left) or old-growth redwood railroad ties like the ones Pacific Heritage Wood Supply Co. reclaimed from the Oakland Navy Depot in California (above, right).

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    David Christensen

    Nearly any type of salvaged material is rich in potential—whether it’s highway platforms from Boston’s Big Dig project (above, left) or old-growth redwood railroad ties like the ones Pacific Heritage Wood Supply Co. reclaimed from the Oakland Navy Depot in California (above, right).

Hong and Park see real value—and a real future—in deconstructed materials and sustainable building. “We were interested in realizing the material but also the system,” Park says of the Big Dig House. “Demolition of highways happens everywhere, and we can demo them to use in public housing. If we put enough time into feasibility studies, we can reuse bridges and many other structures.”

“Second use can even be designed into structures from the beginning,” Hong adds. “If you start looking at potential uses for salvaged materials, it boggles the mind what is possible.”

caveat emptor

Considering the world of new possibilities is exciting, but the process of using salvaged materials in new ways requires architects to think and design differently. Product availability, sizes, and codes all play a role. For one thing, the salvage yard is not like a typical materials supplier; no two pieces are alike. “The inventory is live and constantly changing,” says Mark Pomeroy of The ReBuilding Center. “If you hang out long enough, you'll get good stuff, but it depends on being in the right place at the right time.”

Sometimes just being there isn't enough. “Planning ahead is key to using salvaged components,” Zoeller insists. “Standard dimensions change over time.” In most cases, you'll have to figure out how to design without a specific product and yet, design for it. You may even have to buy the salvaged products first and then fit them into a design program later.

There are options aplenty, to be sure, but Zoeller cautions against reusing mill-work with lead paint or old windows, which are inferior to new products. “Used radiators can be great with hydronic heat,” he says, “but I would stay clear of mechanical equipment entirely. Anything with a ‘useful life'—furnaces, boilers, water heaters—will either wear out, become antiquated, or both.”

Cost is another consideration, depending on what you're using and how you're getting it. “Sometimes the savings derived from avoiding disposal costs and new material costs can combine to make deconstruction cost effective,” Abrams says. What's more, Pomeroy adds, most nonprofit salvage yards will sell products for half of retail value—or way below it.

Neseth isn't quite as optimistic. “Originally, there was a thought that salvaged would be cheaper, but that's not the case,” he says. “The labor cost is higher. You might get the material for free, but the time and labor costs spent prepping it add up.”

Roberts concedes there are limitations to the old-is-better-than-new rule. “If you have antique barn timbers shipped from southern France to your construction site in Idaho, you're using a lot of energy getting them from there to here,” she writes. “In that case, new timbers from a sustainably managed forest in the Pacific Northwest might make more sense.”

As with anything, she adds, it's important “to weigh the pros and cons of old versus new. Reuse is often good for the environment, but not always.”